With less than three weeks until a deadline for federal compensation for Sept. 11 victims, a third of the eligible families have yet to file claims with the federal government.
Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, said he was concerned by the inaction of so many families but expected most would wait until the last minute to file.
"In the last two weeks, there will be a flood of claims. That's just how it works," Feinberg said.
The deadline for filing claims is Dec. 22. Feinberg said it would take an act of Congress to extend the deadline - action lawmakers seem reluctant to support. Last week, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) failed to persuade the Senate to take up a vote for a one-year extension.
"Extending the filing deadline won't cost the government a dime and will allow literally hundreds of families some more time to submit their forms to qualify for their benefits," Lautenberg said.
The Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, created by Congress just days after the terrorist attacks, is an unprecedented attempt by the federal government to compensate families for their pain and suffering. The fund covers people killed or injured in the attacks.
But the fund also represents a calculated attempt by Congress to blunt the legal fallout for airlines and the owners of the World Trade Center. By accepting the government's offer for compensation, families must forgo their right to sue.
Of the 2,976 people who were killed in New York, Washington and Western Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, the families of 1,969 victims - or 66 percent of the total - have filed claims for compensation.
In addition, 1,876 people have filed claims for injuries.
Awards have ranged from $250,000 to $6.9 million for death claims, and $500 to $7.8 million for injury claims. Congress did not set limits on how much the fund could distribute, and so far, the awards have amounted to $1.3 billion. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the fund could wind up spending $6 billion.
Many relatives of 9/11 victims say they lack the emotional energy to fill out the paperwork for claims.
In addition to submitting financial information, families must compile testimonial material from friends and relatives, as well as photos and videotapes, to paint fuller pictures of the lives of victims.
Mary Fetchet, director of Voices of September 11th, an advocacy group for families of victims, said she and her husband had hired a lawyer to help prepare a claim but had not been able to motivate themselves to follow through with a filing - even in the face of the approaching deadline.
"The families I'm in contact with were really struggling after the second anniversary," Fetchet said. "Many are paralyzed. This is an extremely complicated process."
Fetchet, of New Canaan, Conn., who lost her 24-year-old son, Brad, said her inaction has nothing to do with the possibility of litigation, and more to do with inertia.
"What's the problem with giving these families more time?" Fetchet asked.
Feinberg said that to make the process as simple as possible, the fund is requiring families to complete only the first two pages of the forms by Dec. 22.
Sensing that time was running out, Gary and Judi Reiss have decided to file a claim this week. The couple, from Lower Makefield, Bucks County, lost their son, 23-year-old Joshua, a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald who was killed when the first plane struck the World Trade Center.
Judi Reiss said she and her husband seriously thought about filing a lawsuit against the airlines or WTC owner. But in the end, they decided it would be too much trouble.
"It would be in court for 10 to 20 years," Judi Reiss said. "I can't do that."
Only 73 people have filed lawsuits against the airlines or trade center. Ellen Mariani, of southern New Hampshire, was one of the first. Mariani's husband, Louis Neil Mariani, was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Not only is Mariani suing United Airlines for lax security, she also filed a second lawsuit in September in federal court here against President Bush and his administration.
Mariani, who is represented by Philip J. Berg, a Lafayette Hill lawyer, charges that the Bush administration failed to heed repeated warnings from U.S. intelligence and foreign sources that terrorists might use commercial aircraft as weapons.
"Our government had knowledge of this and took no steps to prevent it," Berg said.
Mariani said no amount of money from the federal government would persuade her to back off from her legal fight.
"I would eat dirt before Mr. Feinberg got me into the fund," Mariani said.
"I am a person who wants to know what happened," said the 65-year-old grandmother, who is living off monthly Social Security checks. "Money is great, but not when it comes to a loved one being murdered."
Feinberg, a specialist in mass tort litigation who was assigned as special master of the fund, makes final determinations on the cash value of awards based on the professional and personal lives of victims.
At hearings, relatives can contest the size of awards, with Feinberg making all final rulings.
Fiona Havlish, of Lower Makefield, said Feinberg was accommodating and surprisingly well-informed about the details of her husband's case. Donald Havlish Jr. was an insurance company executive who was killed in the collapse of the South Tower.
"He had read every bit of information about me," Havlish said. "He was kind, compassionate. He listened and asked appropriate questions. I nearly fell off my chair."
She said she had hired her own expert to calculate her late husband's earnings potential. She said Feinberg considered the information when adjusting her final award.
"They do listen," Havlish said.
Some lawyers said Feinberg had shown a willingness to be flexible. In one move, he has allowed injured rescue workers to apply for compensation from the fund.
Michael Barasch, a lawyer with the New York law firm of Barasch McGarry, said he expected all of his 1,200 clients - mostly firefighters, police and sanitation workers who suffer respiratory disorders and have sued the City of New York - to drop their lawsuits and file claims with the victim-compensation fund.
Awards for injured ground zero workers have ranged from $300,000 to $1.2 million. "This will save the City of New York $350 million," Barasch said. "He's been wonderful about it."